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How to Ride the New York Subway

Updated on March 9, 2010
The N train is one of the New York subways whose route is partially above ground. (Photo by Thomas Picard)
The N train is one of the New York subways whose route is partially above ground. (Photo by Thomas Picard)

What a daunting task for tourists and new New Yorkers alike: riding on the New York City subway system! It's just like this great city; it's big, it's complicated, and it's fast-paced.

This is not a how-to-use guide; it is a how-to-not-look-like-a-fool guide. Whether you're here for a few days or for the next ten years of your life, here are a few etiquette ideas from a New Yorker that you can employ when you want to use public transportation in the greatest city on earth.

Know Before You Go

The most important thing is to not hold up traffic in the subway. If you don't know where you're going, you will get in the way, and people will be angry at you. I will be angry at you.

Where are you starting out? Where are you going? Do you generally know how the city is laid out? These things are pretty important if you're going to use the subway.

Before you even walk down those stairs, familiarize yourself with the subway you are going to take and how much you will have to pay (currently $2.25 per person per ride). Check out the Metro Transit Authority website; they have a map of the subway system so you can figure out your departing and arriving station. Or get a guide book that has the map in it so you can always have it handy.

The Rules

So now, most importantly, here are a few important rules to follow so you don't violate the code of etiquette that everyone else is following.

  • Do Not Make Eye Contact.

I don't care if you think the guy across from you is amazingly interesting or if he has a hundred tattoos or is clipping his toenails or is staring at you. You may not make eye contact with anyone you do not know.

  • Do Not Speak Loudly.

We do not want to listen to your conversation, whether the subway car is jam packed or nearly empty. Worst case, you will make yourself seem obviously out of place or confused or lost and thus target yourself for a mugging or worse. Best case, everyone in the car wants to smack you. Speak at a low, respectful tone, and everything will be fine.

  • Act Like You Know Where You're Going.

This one really only matters if you care what other people think of you. Generally, tourists stick out and generate a lot of annoyance from New Yorkers. You can ask questions, but at least familiarize yourself with the general workings of the subway system before you get here.

  • Keep Walking. Quickly.

Again, standing around and clogging major walkways makes everything worse for everyone. If you are confused or must stop walking for any reason, move your entire party to the very edge of wherever you are. Only when you are satisfied that you are not blocking anyone's passage, then you can stop walking.

  • Let the Passengers On the Train Get Off First.

Stand aside. Just do. Again, it's all about efficiency, and keeping someone from getting off the train would be a terribly annoying thing of you to do.

  • Don't Hold the Doors Open.

Only veteran New Yorkers are allowed to do this. Wait for the next train if your whole party isn't there to get on the train at the exact moment it arrives in the station.

  • Don't Take Too Much Space on the Benches

Your bag belongs in your lap or under your feet. If you are lucky enough to get a seat, make sure that only your butt is occupying it.

  • Yield Your Seat to Elderly, Pregnant Women, and Disabled

You do not even have to exchange words; eye contact will do. Stand up and gesture towards your seat after making eye contact with any of these people. If they shake their head because they don't want to sit, you can sit back down or move away to give someone else your seat. You could also yield to someone who looks tired or is carrying a lot of bags. New Yorkers are more considerate than you think. :)

A man stands back from the moving subway. (Photo by Niklas Jutterstrom)
A man stands back from the moving subway. (Photo by Niklas Jutterstrom)

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These are the main ones that I can think of at the moment. Mostly, don't get in the way and be as inconspicuous as possible. Many people who ride the subways have to do so several times a day, and while they may enjoy the ride more if you make a fool of yourself, it's more likely that you'll just make us all grumble more about stupid tourists. It's easiest for everyone if you just follow the rules.


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    • profile image

      Uncle Sam 7 years ago

      Good article, in the subway you can check a city's pulse imo

    • profile image

      arid 7 years ago

      Its astonishing to see a majority of people even form the developed part of the world need to know this, your great advice also applies to the locals who often ignore these small considerations and do not respect the right of other commuters.

    • earnestshub profile image

      earnestshub 7 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      As an Australian tourist who lives in a city with a huge subway I felt right at home. I must say the New Yorkers I met went out of their way to be friendly and helpful. Just like home!

    • profile image

      notanewyorker 7 years ago

      huh...visiting new york soon, and reading this just makes it more aware to me that im visting to see a great city, not the people who live there.

    • profile image

      Bertha Solomon 8 years ago takes this shit very seriously. Upload your photos and rate the seathogs.

    • Stacie L profile image

      Stacie L 9 years ago

      This is good advice. I made it a point to ride the subways when I lived on Long Island just to get over my fear of them.

      You do need to be aware.

    • profile image

      NYCtek 9 years ago

      Making eye contact on NYC subways is of course only for residents. Preferrably attractive or intriguing residents.

      It is not only permissible, but is an art form that surpasses the Japanese Tea Ceremony in complexity and lore.

      But that is the subject of another page...

    • profile image

      RockGirl 10 years ago

      goodhub :D

    • darron profile image

      darron 10 years ago from New York City

      Oh man, I TOTALLY need to rerwrite my hub. Love it!~